Thursday September 4 2014

Used luxury vehicles are unreliable

A third generation VW Touareg in Kampala. Many

A third generation VW Touareg in Kampala. Many car fans can only afford such luxury vehicles in used form. Even then, they are expensive to fix. PHOTO BY ISMAIL KEZAALA 

By Mustafa Ziraba

Luxury cars are fun. They have simple subtle additions that make driving pleasurable. In Uganda, all German cars are considered luxurious regardless of their target market. In a way, society decides what is luxurious and what is not. Nevertheless, there is no questioning the appeal of big, powerful luxury cars like the Mercedes S Class, G Class, Range Rover and BMW 7-series to supporters. Thing is, these class of cars are simply out of reach as a new car purchases for the larger driving population. It is only when a car gets to a certain age-the five to 16 year age range-that that it becomes attainable to drivers of average financial standing.

I cannot blindly recommend such a car to a friend, however, I still cannot fault anyone for wanting one of them. These machines even in their old age are more car than the newer second and third tier cars. Interestingly, while the price of admission may not be a problem, the cost of staying in the game might be too much for some to handle.

Enter reliabilty
“Nothing is as expensive as a cheap used Mercedes”, we have all heard the saying. Why are these cars just unreliable? First and foremost, luxury cars do have an insane amount of technology firsts. For instance, the BMW 7 Series E32 (1986 -1994) had, a system that automatically increased spring pressure on the windscreen wipers, to keep them firmly pressed on the glass at highway speeds.

That is 20 years ago, the Mercedes Benz S-Class W140 (1991 -1998), had self-closing doors and boot. This list can go on and on. The problem is at some stage all those little engi
neering marvels break down, one by one,
and the repair costs may eventually exceed the price paid for the car. Fact is, all these technologies eventually filter down to the average cars but that is when the manufacturers have worked out all the kinks.

For instance, the anti-lock braking system, is so common place nowadays, a scene that was not possible 20 years ago. This technology was only reserved for drivers from the upper class.

Many people buy luxury cars for various reasons
Two that particularly stand out are, one, the fact that these cars are plush with refined levels of comfort and technologies and two, status in society. While the latter is easily attained, the former particularly with the technologies, things don’t play nice.

Truth is, used luxury cars are a pain to own. Everyone with one almost always has a second car perhaps a Toyota, and always has a story to tell. That is the story many potential buyers never get to hear. Likely you have heard the phrase “German engineering” more than a few times in your life and there is a popular misconception that it equals good reliability.

German cars are well engineered, many times to be amazing performance machines and still many times to be incredibly high-tech, but German cars don’t have the best track record for reliability in their old age. This is a combination of poor handling by a previous owner or simple failure to take care of the car like it should.

Simple logic
The way I see it, it comes down to simple
logic. The main problem is that the Germans are just too obsessed with stuffing all sorts of gizmos into their cars. This is largely because no one questions the prowess of Geman engi
neering, indeed they are still the best at that. So they continue to show their engineering dominance by creating all sorts of stuff and sticking them in their cars, stuff that no one wants, such as a parking brake that is operated by a button.

While most companies would be content with simply building a traditional parking brake, BMW could not do just that. In their E65 BMW 7 Series (model years 2002 to 2008), they had to do more. That was 12 years ago. They could not just have a typical automatic transmission, they had to offer a sealed for life transmission that almost always breaks in high mileage cars.

Expensive maintenance
Again you shall often hear, “if you take care of it like you should, it should last you a lifetime”. While this might hold true, you have to understand that it costs quite a bit of money to hold that line up, money many would-be or current owners are not willing to cough up. Nevertheless, you and I still want one, so how do we do this?

First and foremost because you are buying it used, in Uganda, unless, of course you are buying from a friend, you might not have a chance to test drive and have your mechanic check it. Even from the bond, there is only so much testing you can do. While it shall drive, there are things you might fail to see during the short trip.

I agree that a large percentage of the population is sold on German reliability, that percentage being wholly made up of the people wealthy enough to buy their cars and not care when they break down. Sure they complain just like everyone else but when it does, they take it to the authorised dealer and just drive their other car, pay full dealership price to have that broken window motor fixed and not even flinch because that is what wealth is, owning a German car.

And then there is us, the unwashed masses, the mob, the 99 per cent, the enthusiasts. We know damn well that used German cars are unreliable. We try and have specific mechanics parts shops etc. In the end it still costs an arm and a leg and two months’ rent to get that unusual sound to stop. We simply want the prestige. Truth is, the experience of owning a German car is unique.

Typically the most reliable model of any old luxury car is the last model year of a specific generation. The manufacturer has worked out as many “bugs” as possible with that one. Never go for the first ones to come out with a model change.

Secondly, you have to understand that German cars are inherently no more or less materially reliable than the average car. However, they are “over engineered”, often with edgy technology, which means that there is more to break statistically, and when that breaks, it is going to be more expensive to repair, period. This brings me to the third point that because of this fact, a used German car owner has to be mechanically inclined, willing to research about their car, have a my-car fund for any eventualities to buy expensive parts or simply have a fat enough wallet to take it to the dealer whenever need arises.

Truth is, these cars need to be dealer maintained as per factory recommendations and never abused. Ultimately, the hard to swallow truth is that a brand new luxury car is out of reach for even seemingly well-to-do folks. The price of admission is only on hand in the car’s old age, something we just have to live with albeit the reliability conundrums ownership presents.